The third canto contains what the most recognizable line in "The Divine Comedy," and possibly one of the best-known lines in Western literature. It is the sign above the entrance to hell: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here."
As avoidable a fate as it may be to those who set the doctrines, an eternity of searing torment is still too much, too late. The torments of Dante's hell offer no redemption to those incarcerated there, as the sufferings of this life may; nor is there an escape, as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle provide in their own "Inferno" novel.
And yet readers have returned to "The Divine Comedy" for centuries, despite objections to the severity of hell.
A lot of the reason for the poem's appeal begins to come clear in this very canto. Alighieri uses some apocalyptic imagery in Canto I, placing savage animals in Dante's path that commentators see as representing both political states and worldly vices; and Canto II saw garden-variety mysticism in the intercession Beatrice makes on Dante's account to rescue him from the dark wood; but so far we have seen none of the turn-your-head sorts of images that we associate with "The Inferno." Until now.
Here at the entrance to the land of the dead, unearthly moans assault Dante's ears with a din that he renders in a manner both poignant and unsettling. The people uttering these tormented cries run through the vestibule of hell, stung by hornets and wasps as they chase a banner that flutters in the breeze, just beyond their reach. Their tears mix with blood as they fall to the ground, where they are consumed by worms.
And this picturesque torment is just what occurs in the vestibule to hell. The sin for which these people are being tormented is merely one of cowardice. Those punished could not bring themselves either to follow God nor to live lives of open sin. Virgil likens them to angels who neither fought with God when Satan rebelled, nor sided with the devil. The price of their cowardice is that neither heaven nor hell will admit them.
And in this procession of banner-chasers is where we find a cipher for one layer of interpretation of "The Inferno." Dante claims to recognize several members of the crowd, but comments only on one, whom he accuses of "cowardice in making the great refusal." Alighieri makes no further comment on this, but commentators apparently believe it was Pope Celestine V, who resigned the papal office five months later and gave it to Pope Boniface VIII..
From what I can tell, Celestine V's papcy is remarkable only for its brevity. The issue Alighieri has with Celestine seems to be solely that he relinquished his papal office. And to a man like Dante, who took a bullet not once, briefly, but over much of his adult life, for his views, that decision to reject the Seat of Peter must have been not only incomprehensible, but reprehensible as well.
And, after all, what is hell is all about? Setting aside our theological basis for hell, the people we most would like to see in hell are the people who are unlike us. A hundred years ago in the United States, native fundamentalists conflated dislike of hard-drinking Irish workers and Italian immigrants, with religious differences that Protestants have the Roman Catholic Church, and condemn them all.
Today it's not uncommon to hear conservative preachers calling down God's wrath upon pro-choices, gays and lesbians, and environmentalists; or for liberal Christians to get snarky and suggest that when things go wrong for the GOP, it's because conservatives aren't following God. Hell's a great place to send people who aren't like us, because they clearly deserve it. If they didn't, they would be more like us.
Canto III is also where we see Alighieri begin to draw more fully upon Greco-Roman mythology to flesh out his vision of hell, from its soteriography to its personalities. Virgil here refers to the Acheron, one of the rivers that flowed through Hades; and Dante himself beholds Charon, the ancient oarsman whose job it was to ferry the dead across the River Styx.
A widely held religious view in the Middle Ages was that anyone who worshiped pagan gods actually was worshiping a devil, a belief Alighieri indulges in his poem, if not actually embracing it. He portrays Charon not just as an old man, but as a devil "with eyes of glowing coal," with no patience or pity for any who dawdle.
The entire experience is too much for poor Dante. Although he had resolved at the end of Canto II to put aside fear, he notes that even years after this experience occurred, he still trembles at its mere recollection. Now having crossed the Styx a living man, he is witness an earthquake accompanied by a bright light, and he passes out.
Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.